Ben Affleck has come a long way, baby, from a critically derided and mostly untested actor to a respectable Clint Eastwood behind the camera. For his latest, “Argo,” the director and actor leaves behind Boston (the working-class milieu for his last crackerjack features, 2007’s “Gone Baby Gone” and 2010’s “The Town”) and rips from the historical headlines. Although it’s being sold as an important American motion picture for the awards season, “Argo” is really just a conventional, matter-of-fact docudrama and nothing greater than solid, well-made Hollywood entertainment. And that’s just fine.
It doesn’t really matter what’s “based on a true story” anymore because it’s all in the execution, but the story in “Argo” is so crazy it just might be true. Following an Iranian history primer of the events leading up to the Iran hostage crisis, the world is about to change in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution. The sequence of Tehran civilians storming through the U.S. Embassy gates and employees rushing to shred and incinerate all documents is so breathlessly harrowing and intense that anyone with a pulse will be stressed out. (Stock news footage of the street demonstrations and the reenactments are smoothly blurred.) While most of the embassy’s staff members are taken hostage, six of them manage to escape out a side door and find refuge in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Meanwhile, Taylor’s Iranian housekeeper (Shelia Vand) will have to keep her mouth shut and revolutionaries are piecing together the shredded documents, so how long will it be until they’re discovered?
The State Department explores options for “exfiltrating” the escapees from Iran. Enter Tony Mendez (Affleck), a CIA specialist, who comes up with the “best bad idea”: pose the six as a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran for a schlocky science fiction picture. First, he’ll need a script, which turns out to be “Argo,” a grade-Z “Star Wars” knockoff. Once “Planet of the Apes” make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) from Burbank Studios enter the scene to “make” the fake movie, it seems as if the film will venture into “Wag the Dog” territory and not look back. There’s amusing, affectionate Hollywood-insider humor on the movie biz, but screenwriter Chris Terrio (from Joshuah Bearman’s article “Escape from Tehran”) and Affleck, at the helm, are careful not to deflate the tension of the central situation. When Mendez flies to Tehran and tells the secret six his plan, each of them must not just learn their fake name and contribution to the fake movie, but have to know their fake birthdays, filmographies, etc. to make it all seem 100% genuine.
Affleck not only pulls off the scope of this fact-based story, deftly hopscotching from Tehran to Washington D.C. to Hollywood, but has a knack for casting perfect faces in this ensemble piece. Even down to the smallest role, there isn’t a dud in the bunch. Affleck, with a beard, shaggy ’70s hair, and rarely a smile from his stone-faced expressions, admirably underplays the role of Tony Mendez. He anchors the film, even if the long distance from his 10-year-old son and “taking time off” from his wife in Virginia are only cursorily handled rather than being dealt with an emotionally punchy landing. Goodman and Arkin have the most fun, both utterly believable in their roles and end up creating the film’s best catchphrase, “Argo fuck yourself!” Bryan Cranston, as Mendez’s boss Jack O’Donnell; Kyle Chandler, as President Jimmy Carter’s Chief of Staff; Richard Kind, as a screenwriter; and others all pull their weight. (Blink and you’ll miss a fun cameo from ’80s sex symbol and horror-movie scream queen Adrienne Barbeau as Arkin’s ex-wife.) Most importantly, of the six escapees, character actors Tate Donovan, Clea DuVall, Christopher Denham, Kerry BishÃ©, Scoot McNairy, and Affleck’s old “Dazed and Confused” co-star Rory Cochrane all create diverse, empathetic personalities.
The film’s gripping climactic momentsâ€”Mendez getting all six people to board the plane for Switzerlandâ€”are its best. Manipulative, yes, but Affleck tightens the screws with enough life-or-death close calls, quickens the pace with cross-cutting, and knows how to enhance the high-stakes suspense to a crackling, almost unbearably tense degree. As the story reaches its predestined conclusion, Alexandra Desplat’s dramatic music score swells so much that it oversells itself as a pat crowd-pleaser.
With Rodrigo’s Prieto’s crisp cinematography, rock music evocative of its day, and Jacqueline West’s costume design an ace contribution, there is nothing kitschy about the period detail. What certainly feels less thematically deep and emotionally complex than both of Affleck’s last directorial efforts, “Argo” is still an accomplished piece of storytelling that proves truth really is stranger than fiction. It may not be one for the record books, but it’s more proof that Affleck as a director is no fluke.
120 min., rated R.